PM’s Pledge To Regulate Internet Causes Controversy
In the wake of the Manchester and London attacks, Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated her plans to regulate online and physical spaces.
Technology experts and commentators have criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s calls for internet censorship in the wake of Britain’s third terrorist attack this year. Speaking outside of Number 10 Downing Street, the morning after an attack in London killed 7 and injured 48, Mrs. May called for urgent change surrounding ‘safe spaces’ which she says the internet affords to extremism. She asserted: ‘We cannot and must not continue the way things are, things need to change.’
Mrs. May claimed that extremism would not be defeated by military intervention or even counterterrorism operations, ‘however skilful its leaders and practitioners.’ Instead, the Prime Minister described a four-point plan which the government would implement to regulate the ‘safe spaces’ that extremists operate in both on and offline.
Mrs. May said: “Since the emergence of Islamist-inspired terrorism, our country has made significant progress in disrupting plots and protecting the public. But it is time to say enough is enough. … When it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.” According to the PM, these regulations would be created through domestic and international agreements, and afford authorities more powers to police online circles. End-to-end encryption, which protects communications ranging from email to cloud storage, has been identified by Home Secretary Amber Rudd as a target for such legislation.
But privacy campaigners and civil rights groups have branded the PM’s comments as overbearing and dangerous. Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, said on Sunday that Mrs. May’s solution was too simplistic. Killock asserted that ‘real solutions’ rather than sweeping legislation veiled by rhetoric, were needed to combat extremism.
In the wake of the most recent attack, Killock warned: “London and Manchester are both cities with big creative and tech sectors, with many people very aware of what the Internet does, its benefits and also the dangers of attempts to control, censor and surveil. If the government uses these events to pursue policies that are ineffective, meaningless or dangerous, then many of those who feel a personal investment in seeing our communities protected, may quickly feel that these events are being exploited rather than dealt with maturely
These concerns were furthered by online activist and author Cory Doctorow, who argued that the Prime Minister fundamentally misunderstands the demand that secure cryptography must be banned in the UK.
“Theresa May says there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read” — and no doubt many in her party will agree with her, politically. But if they understood the technology, they would be shocked to their boots.” he says.
“It’s impossible to overstate how bonkers the idea of sabotaging cryptography is to people who understand information security. If you want to secure your sensitive data either at rest – on your hard drive, in the cloud, on that phone you left on the train last week and never saw again – or on the wire, when you’re sending it to your doctor or your bank or to your work colleagues, you have to use good cryptography. Use deliberately compromised cryptography, that has a back door that only the “good guys” are supposed to have the keys to, and you have effectively no security. You might as well skywrite it as encrypt it with pre-broken, sabotaged encryption.”
In a similar vein, Killock added that extremism would find avenues to express itself regardless of regulation. In reference to Mrs. May’s four-point plan on Sunday, he said: “This could be a very risky approach. If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe.”
However, Alastair Duff, professor of information policy at Edinburgh Napier University and author of A Normative Theory of the Information Society, claimed that an effective online solution could severely disrupt extremist circles. He said: “I think if you actually dealt with the online problem, they [extremists] won’t get it from television which is regulated, and they won’t get it from print publications. If there is a physical space which is inciting terrorism, the police can deal with that. So, where else could this happen, except online?
“The problem has also been massively magnified, obscured and made intractable by instant online access. It’s the same with the problem with pornography. [Previously] People knew that you could buy pornography if you shelled out a lot of money and went to a lot of trouble – now it’s 2 clicks away, and that’s a massive change.
“While I’m an idealist about the internet and its potential, we need to recognise it reflects human nature at its worst as well, and it’s given the worst elements unprecedented access to the vulnerable.”
Doctorow summarised the problem with giving the government tools to access anyone’s data, “Making it possible for the state to open your locks in secret means that anyone who works for the state, or anyone who can bribe or coerce anyone who works for the state, can have the run of your life. Cryptographic locks don’t just protect our mundane communications: cryptography is the reason why thieves can’t impersonate your fob to your car’s keyless ignition system; it’s the reason you can bank online; and it’s the basis for all trust and security in the 21st century.”
However, professor Duff contested: “I don’t think anyone is being reactionary. I think the state should interfere – it is the duty of the state. These [social media] companies need to eliminate any activity by any terrorist; child pornographer; advertiser of suicide. I speak as a professor in information policy but also as a father. There’s no doubt that most radicalisation takes place in bedrooms – they [vulnerable individuals] simply Google ‘whatever’, and in a few minutes are in an interactive chat with a fanatic spouting poison to them. And their parents are innocent and none-the-wiser. So they are cut-off from their own parents, groomed and are turned into walking-dangers, and that isn’t acceptable.”
Google told the BBC it already spends hundreds of millions of pounds combatting abuse on its various platforms, and is currently working on an, “international forum to accelerate and strengthen our existing work in this area”. Google added that it shared, “the government’s commitment to ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online”.
Facebook, whose guidelines on combatting extremism were published by the Guardian last month, told the BBC: “Using a combination of technology and human review, we work aggressively to remove terrorist content from our platform as soon as we become aware of it – and if we become aware of an emergency involving imminent harm to someone’s safety, we notify law enforcement.” Facebook’s regulations detail that any content which shows ‘support, praise or representation’ of extremist views is to be deleted immediately.
Responding to the attack in London, Killock added: “Many people in London and Manchester will not wish these events to be exploited and used to usher in policies that are ill-thought out, illiberal or otherwise seek to exploit the situation. This is not a denial of the vulnerability that we feel, but a desire to ensure that terrorism does not win. These attacks so often occur in cities with very liberal and open outlooks, where there is little or no expectation of political violence, and toleration is a normal way of being.
“We will be looking very carefully at her [Theresa May’s] proposals for internet censorship and attempts to limit the security of ordinary users of online services. To be clear, we are not saying that there are no measures that could ever be taken. There are already, quite rightly, laws about what is illegal and duties on companies to act when they are instructed. They also do a great deal well beyond their legal duties, because they do not want any association with any kind of criminality.
“We—and we hope you—will want to know: will the proposals work? Will they create new risks or adverse effects? Who will hold the police or companies to account for their decisions, and how? So far, what we have heard does not give us much confidence that we will receive satisfactory answers.”
Professor Duff agreed, stating, “I do not believe the state should be spying on everyone’s communications – that is a massive shift in the relationship between the individual and the state, that is a power grab. It is not required by the common good and it could destroy the common good, it could destroy democracy, it could lead to dystopia.
“I think there needs to be particular cause. I do not believe that the state should not be able to decipher messages, because if it doesn’t have that capability under court-order and properly regulated then you are handing carte-blanche to demonic forces – terrorists, those who sell weapons, and murderous drug cartels. The state is ultimately a moral establishment, it represents the common good. Of-course, the state has to be regulated, democratised and supervised by the people, but the state must have the right to act.
“Ethics should permeate all of spaces – culture and economy. I don’t believe you divorce ethics from politics. That’s a false philosophy of freedom. True freedom involves the common good, it involves reciprocity. It also involves state assistance, and sometimes that’s interference. But true freedom can only take place where there’s good law, otherwise you’re in what Hobbes described as ‘nasty, brutish and short’.”